Between 1968 and 1972, Ursula K. LeGuin published her Earthsea trilogy. These novels (which I had not read before, so I read them in preparation for Tehanu) are among the great classics of the fantasy genre; I’d say Earthsea ranks just below Narnia and Middle-Earth in the fantasy pantheon, though it’s not as well known among the general public as those two series. The series follows a young boy named Ged on a world of islands and ancient magic as he learns the depths of his own power, becomes the arch-mage, and battles ancient evils. It’s influence has been dramatic – Riddlemaster feels very derivative of Earthsea, and Ged’s time in wizard school is very reminiscent of a more recent fantasy phenomenon.
The original trilogy suffers from a few of the fantasy tropes that I personally dislike, especially the stilted, myth-inspired prose that I’ve complained about in the past, but I think its reputation is well-deserved. Even when she’s using a voice that I don’t particularly care for, LeGuin is an amazing writer. She captures the wonder of dragons and ancient tombs, and she describes the workings of magic better than anyone before (and maybe since).
The trilogy feels fairly complete, as the final volume threatens the whole world of magic while exploring the relationship between life and death and effectively ends the arc of the main character. However, LeGuin decided to return to Earthsea in 1990 to explore the issue of gender in Tehanu. In the original trilogy she meant to subvert fantasy literature by making her central characters non-white. I’d say that this concern seems somewhat dated (I barely noticed), but, then again, the casting of the recent SyFy channel movie suggests that this is still an issue. So, race subverted, but the fact that the world of wizards is completely male went by without much notice. The second book of the trilogy does focus on a girl named Tenar, who becomes a priestess and has to overcome the restrictions of her religion and sex to help Ged, but LeGuin clearly felt there was more to be said.
So, in this book, we return to Tenar, decades after her previous appearance in The Tombs of Atuan. We check in on Ged’s old mentor, the now-dying Ogion, and we learn that there are actual restrictions on women’s use of magic. Eventually, Ged shows up, exhausted and powerless from his confrontation in the third book, and Ged and Tenar must work together to help an abused young girl named Therru and to avoid conflict with the sexist wizard Aspen.
The tone and language is completely different from the previous Earthsea novels, and reading all four books together really highlighted the clash. The first three books are epic quests, narrated as legendary tales. This novel is far more grounded, quiet, even pastoral, and it moves slowly, without much plot development. It’s interesting to step into this world and get a more intimate look at it, but it turned out there wasn’t much to see.
The book continually returns to the question of how women’s power differs from men, and comes up with the answer that women are more...earthy...and stuff. I found this trite and unsatisfying. With an entire world at her fingertips, I just expected LeGuin to do more than rehash old arguments and give us examples of victimization and repression that could have come from almost any era of real history.
I like the idea behind this novel: let’s look at why this great world she created seems to be implicitly sexist and use that to explore gender roles in a fantasy setting. I think the problem here is that LeGuin has set out to write a dogmatic novel rather than letting the questions arise organically. She forces the issue at every turn, and plot, character, and world-building all suffer as a result.